Get Your Book Selling on Apple Books
How the heck do you gain visibility on this mysterious retailer?
I’m continuing a personal challenge to myself to share a crème de la crème tidbit of interest about each book in my new series, Book Sales Supercharged. I’m trying to pick things that I haven’t seen other authors articulating. For the previous post in this series, I talked about something that was quite a bit forward thinking; today I’m going to offer something that is more basic but also more immediately actionable. Today’s focus is on Apple Books!
A Little About the Book
Get Your Book Selling on Apple Books is the second book in the Book Sales Supercharged series and focuses on the Apple Books storefront, as well as Apple as a brand and company. The book covers ebooks and audiobooks and tries to answer questions like:
How do you get merchandised in their storefront?
What are the key metadata optimizations you want to get right?
What does Apple Books want—in terms of where Apple Books fits in at Apple as well as from the authors that it works with?
You can read more about this book at https://theworldneedsyourbook.com/wide/
Read Other Posts in This Series
Get Your Book Selling Wide: Should fiction authors be paying attention to the best audio search engine? https://aggressivelywide.substack.com/p/get-your-book-selling-wide
One of the biggest challenges I hear authors having with Apple Books is around knowing how to gain visibility there. I’ve heard many authors refer to this as a chicken and egg problem, in that you need an “in” of some sort to participate in Apple Books’ in-house promotions, but to get that, you need to be selling well on Apple Books already so you can catch the eye of a representative.
There are two other factors that deepen the frustration around this, which are
No one knows anything about Apple Books’ algorithm or how they bring visibility to books, and
In order to even explore or see the Apple Books ecosystem, you need an iPhone or iPad—which to some is out of reach and/or could seem exclusive or pricey indeed.
Apple Books can seem shrouded in mystery to some, and mystique has always been a part of Apple’s brand in general. In short, you won’t be getting direct answers from them about how the many mechanisms of visibility work on their platform anytime soon. But you can get some answers here that will hopefully demystify some of the process of getting your books selling on Apple Books.
The first thing we need to demystify Apple Books is a way to see what books are selling well.
For this exercise, I’m going to pull up the Apple Books storefront for the US (the only one that I have access to). I’m pulling this up on my iMac where I am not logged in and have no book history, just to give a better sense of what the store promotes. I’m also pulling this up on my iPad which has all of my account information, so we can get a sense of what personalization Apple Books offers.
iTopChart - A Necessity For Understanding Apple Books
If you try to find bestseller lists on Apple’s website through their links, what you’ll find is… nonsensical. Go ahead, take a look for yourself:
I had a few comments on this but then I deleted them, because honestly we don’t have time to speculate about nonsense. There are some patterns here that seem to point to underlying philosophy around Apple Books’ algorithms… I’m going to do more research.
For now, I’ll instead direct you to the only decent source of information on Apple Books besides its storefront: an independent site called iTopCharts.
With this link above, you can change the country code (e.g. us, gb, ca), you can change the language (e.g. en, de, fr) and you can change ebook to audiobook or free-ebooks to switch charts. You can also append a category to the end to find genre-specific charts. There is also a menu at the top that you can browse to find various charts. If you are struggling to get to where you want to go, do a web search using keywords like “iTopChart thrillers” and see what comes up.
When you look at these charts, you’ll find they come close to matching a fairly obfuscated section of the Apple Books storefront called the Top Charts. The page that likely comes up first is under the Featured tab. If you look at the side of the Apple Books store for all books, you’ll see that the Top Charts list of top sellers is small there. Ten are listed, and if you toggle to free ebooks, another ten are listed there.
I say “comes close to matching” because iTopCharts is usually a little behind the Apple Books’ storefronts, so you may be seeing yesterday’s results on iTopChart and more frequently updated results (some suggest hourly) updates on the Apple Books sidebar.
Apple Books Featured Tab
When you pull up the Apple Books store, the top paid and top free books are in the second Top Charts tab. The first tab is Featured.
Here are some of the lists that show up in each category:
Bestsellers (sometimes called Recent Bestsellers) - This is heavily stocked with traditional publishing titles that have been released in the last 3 months or so.
Read Before You Watch - This is for books turned to movies, so you’ll find books like The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton there.
New This Week (sometimes called New Releases) - New releases for the week. In romance, you’ll see mostly independent authors releasing between $3.99 and $5.99. Most of the other genres are still heavily dominated by traditional publishing, though independent authors seem to again be penetrating these lists at $3.99 - $5.99 pricing. The majority of books are closer to $12.99-$14.99.
Limited Time: Under $$ - The amount changes depending on the genre. For romance, for example, this number is Under $4. For other genres it’s set at Under $5.
Coming Soon - This section is huge and has books listed out up to a year. Pre-orders get a TON of play on Apple Books and are not just suggested for success on the platform, but IMO required.
First in Series: Free (sometimes called Free Series Starters) - You can request to get onto this page through Apple Books’ in-house promotions. More on that later.
All-Time Bestsellers - This list is heavy with traditionally published books. I have some theories about this.
Popular Free - For genres heavy in public domain content or lacking series (like nonfiction).
Traditional publishing still holds a lot of the merchandising. Additionally, I noticed that books with better covers seemed to be placed higher, specifically in the first and second rows of sections like New Releases. Apple’s brand is heavy on well-designed imagery, so this isn’t surprising.
Some genres have savvier or more price-sensitive readers, like romance, where the deals section is featured. Under other genres like young adult and nonfiction, there’s no push for limited time deals. So a young adult Bookbub deal may not do as well on Apple Books as other genres would.
Outside of romance (and this is true for most wide ebook platforms) independent authors still aren’t holding the top spots on the charts with consistency. Traditional publishing is strong in many of these spaces. Many independent authors are pricing higher than best practice for Amazon in order to look like a good deal. There are almost no books at $2.99 on these charts, and limited time deals tend to be $1.99 (which is the standard traditional publishers are setting).
How Independent Authors Can Find Promotional Space on the Featured Tab
Independent authors cannot get into all of these carousels. They can get into many of them though. Specifically:
Coming Soon - Set pre-orders the full amount out (to my knowledge, currently a year). The visibility in this carousel is critical.
New This Week/New Releases - While the traditionally published titles seem to come first, independent authors with solid catalogs do get placed in prominent visibility here as well. Price at $5.99 if you dare because the $3.99 titles genuinely look out of place next to the $14.99 traditionally published titles.
Limited Time: Under $$ - You can ask to be added to this carousel or they may place you there. The most important thing appears to be lead time, a great looking cover, and a solid catalog with Apple Books already. Having a well-branded series is important. Most of the books in this category are $0.99 in romance, while they were $2.99-$3.99 in mystery/thriller. Price according to your genre!
First in Series: Free - This is another list you can get added to. Apple Books also promotes this list heavily as it's an entry point to getting more iPhone and iPad users into their ecosystem. For example, they recently promoted this list in a nationwide campaign at the beginning of the pandemic.
Do pre-orders, but more specifically, always have a pre-order that is one year out. There are three views under Coming Soon: All-Time Bestsellers, Bestsellers, and Release Date. For Release Date, the pre-orders appear in reverse order by release date, and the March 2022 pre-orders appear first on the page in March 2021.
The All-Time Bestsellers and Bestsellers under each category are likely decided partly on price and partly on pre-order count. I have zero confirmation of this, but it’s logical on Apple Books’ part. It’s smart to experiment with pricing your pre-order higher than would be best practice on Amazon as your pre-order listing is mixed in with traditionally published books.
Cumulative pre-orders versus pre-orders over a certain period of time (the last month, the last three months) are something to consider. A longer pre-order likely has a better chance of becoming an “All-Time Bestseller.” This matters because readers are less likely to toggle between these three views of the Coming Soon list, and the All-Time Bestsellers version is the one that comes up most often for me (though I’ve had the others come up too in my testing).
Your metadata really matters around choosing categories. When you click through on some of these carousels (for example, Mysteries and Thrillers), you will get more carousels (e.g. British Detectives, Women Sleuths, Historical, Cozy Mystery, Hard-Boiled). You may not be big enough to compete in the large category but you can appear early in the sub-genre categories. To my knowledge, Apple Books uses your metadata to determine which carousels you belong in.
Get a Bookbub Featured Deal if you can. The Limited Time Deals list is driven by a temporary drop in price + a ton of traffic/sales. A BBFD is probably the easiest way to make an impact here, but you can also stack other advertising and deal sites to create a mini-BBFD.
During a release week, consider how your pricing and cover looks against other books that are releasing around that same time. Change whatever is needed to help your listing fit in. Apple Books pushes books hard during their release month, so this is a boost of visibility to your entire catalog that you don’t want to miss out on.
If you have a permafree, make sure you are on the Free First-in-Series list. I don’t know of any way to get on this aside from contacting Apple Books. Apple Books has strict rules against sharing their special forms and email addresses, but I share some tips on this in the book.
Having a representative at Apple Books and being in the in-store promotions can help you get your books onto each of these lists. Getting an "in" at Apple Books is a whole separate post/section, but the gist of it is that you never need to wait for them to come to you. There are clear and guaranteed ways to get on Apple Books' radar, despite anything you hear about exclusivity.
The Top Charts Tab
Despite the similarities, several of the books in the Top 20 of the Top Charts tab are frequently not in Apple Books’ visible storefront—again, their “front page” is the Featured Tab, rather than the Top Charts tab. The number one similarity for not being on the front page of the bookstore despite being a top seller is that Apple Books might not feature books that are more than a few months old. Either way, these two storefront views seem to operate fairly independently, with the Featured section being largely controlled by merchandising and the Top Charts section being largely controlled by algorithms.
Although the Top Charts tab is not as prominently featured, these books are selling. And the main reason they are selling on the independent author side likely comes down to a handful of reasons:
A discounted price + a Bookbub Featured Deal (BBFD) + other deal email sites
Other advertising (usually Facebook or Bookbub display ads)
A new release under a popular/established author name where the author is driving a ton of traffic to the release
Apple Books is going to push what Apple Books wants to push in its Featured section. The books featured here are not necessarily the top sellers but seem to skew more toward what’s new, what’s popular, and what has a great cover and/or big name attached.
That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s not worthwhile to gain visibility through climbing the charts. The Top Charts tab is featured in many prominent places and the first ten books on the Top Charts are featured on the front page of the store. I believe that the Top Charts tab is heavily driven by advertising, particularly on Bookbub, at least in the US. Other charts—UK and Canada, for example—seem dominated by independent authors as opposed to the US charts which are a mix of newly released traditionally published books and independent books on sale.
When you look at the Featured section, there is huge overlap between what’s selling well and what’s featured. I suspect two things are happening: being featured causes a book to sell well and selling well for an extended period of time, or as a new release, causes Apple Books to reach out so they can feature you. There’s a lot of value to being on the Top Charts and it’s likely one of the best ways to get your books Featured in the future.
Other Areas of Discoverability and Visibility on Apple Books
The Featured and Top Charts tabs are not the only spaces you can gain visibility in Apple Books. I don't have time to cover all of these (they are each separate posts/sections of the associated book), but I wanted to list them out to make an even stronger case against the myth I hear from the newly wide, that Apple Books is a black box shrouded in mystery.
The Categories Tab - This is listed in alphabetical order by major niche/genre and matches much of what you see across the storefront. Being in the top of your category, even a sub-niche, gives you higher visibility in many other spaces, including the Featured tab, category pages, and product pages.
The Top Authors Tab - Featuring both traditionally published and independently published authors, this list is alphabetical order and getting on it likely depends on a few things about your catalog.
Top Picks For You Carousel - This carousel does not appear until you have some history of purchases on your account, but once it does you can find this on the front page before the merchandised Featured content. Apple Books prioritizes the personalized experience, especially in its app.
Customers Also Bought Carousel - This appears on each product page on my iPad when I scroll down, but not on my Mac. I have a number of thoughts on how these books are chosen, but one clear pattern is that the books are often similar books in the genre that were published around the same time as the book we are looking at. This makes sense at a retailer that likes to feature new things, and you’ll see this to a lesser extent on Amazon anyway. The interesting application around this is that you should be watching your wide comp authors carefully and releasing the same types of books in the same months/weeks as them (if it fits your strategy and catalog, of course). You should be doing this doubly if that comp author gets frequent Bookbubs that will bring visibility to their books in the Apple Books storefront.
Books Like This Carousel - This also appears on each product page on my iPad but not on my Mac, and could be driven by personalized buyer history (or not). One thing to note is that this carousel seems to only allow the first two books to be by the same author, and the next appear to be by different authors. This is speculation: I suspect this carousel is driven more by similar authors in the larger genre category while the Customers Also Bought carousel is driven more by individual product linkage. Apple Books has said that they have readers who are not so stuck on sub-niches, so this may be their effort to get readers to read across genre.
Audiobooks Carousel - This carousel is prioritized over Also Boughts and other carousels on the product page, and contains all the audiobooks by the same author. Audiobooks are important to Apple Books and there’s a lot of visibility value in getting your books into audiobooks on this store.
The Apple Books Search Bar - Again, I have suspicions and speculation over what Apple Books prioritizes. Let’s just say that they like to list free books first for more general search terms, such as “British mysteries” or “vampire romance.”
Personalized Emails - This is almost impossible to study from an outside perspective, but from what I understand these are heavily promoting next books in a series that a reader has already downloaded and also promote other books by an author they have already downloaded. This is likely a big reason why a Free First-in-Series that converts is critical to gaining traction on Apple Books. It’s also why you want to get as many readers into that freebie as possible, because it expands your footprint on the store overall.
Push Notifications - Same thing as the personalized emails, these are custom to device-holders who turn on those notifications in their settings. You can encourage readers to do so so that they receive notifications of your new releases.
Temporary exclusivity - All retailers like exclusive content, and bigger boxed sets seem to be something that Apple Books appreciates exclusivity on.
Apple Books coupons - They want authors to come up with creative ways to use them, and they are open to supporting authors who do.
Each item on this list has its own section in the book, Get Your Book Selling on Apple Books, so we can explore them in a deeper dive. I definitely want to give each of these items more space to talk about what we know versus speculation on each item, share authors who are doing or using these visibility spaces well, and share my own experiences with them where possible.
Can you Create Visibility on Apple Books?
The short answer is yes, there’s a systematic and clear way to gain traction on Apple Books. Hopefully I’ve given you enough to see that Apple Books (and all the retailers!) are as interesting and complex as Amazon. There are systems at each of the retailers and plenty of marketing levers to pull to gain traction there.
One of the challenges that wide retailers face is that authors tend to take a “spray and pray” approach to going wide. We lump the wide retailers into one bucket of marketing strategies and tactics, which work mediocrely at best on each platform. And we throw our books up on each platform and call it a day, often wondering how the retailer is going to start making us money rather than how we are going to start making the retailer money (which then makes us a lot more money).
Successful wide authors, of course, do the opposite. They learn each retailer separately and tend to those relationships. They nurture their catalog and readership on each retailer, and they are handsomely rewarded with sales and a full-time career as an author.
There is a lot of ground to be covered around visibility on each retailer, and as you can see, plenty to be covered specifically at Apple Books. If you have interest in this particular storefront, you can pre-order Get Your Book Selling on Apple Books, the second book in the Book Sales Supercharged series. It’s currently only available in one of my bundles via my website, but you will also be able to pre-order the book on all retailers (as many as will accept it :) ) in both ebook and print. The thing I’m currently waiting on is a release date—once I have that, I’ll set up the individual book pre-order everywhere!